Throughout the winter of 2006, I was a contractor with Large Animal Games in New York City, working on LEGO Bricktopia, a Breakout-style game targeted at the casual gaming market.
Since I’d never been a large consumer of Breakout games, my obvious first steps were to survey the contemporary market as well as research the genre to gain some historical perspective. The results of this exploration, along with “sage wisdom” from my on-the-job experience designing Breakout-style levels are the basis for this article.
Genre Overview, A Brief History
Breakout, Arkanoid, and just about every “paddle & ball vs. blocks” videogame you can name have roots that go back as early as 1967, when Ralph Baer designed the Magnavox Odyssey game system and the paddle controller. One of the seminal games for this system included a “paddle & ball” game mechanic, making it the great-granddaddy of the Breakout genre (many mistakenly assume the paddle & ball game mechanic originated with Nolan Bushnell’s Pong, Atari, 1972).
Years later, Nolan Bushnell and Steve Bristow, along with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (of Apple fame) took paddle & ball game play a step further when they designed and developed Breakout (Atari, 1976). This was the first game to include the “paddle & ball vs. blocks” game mechanic integral to subsequent games in the Breakout genre.
In 1986 the Breakout-style game took a radical leap forward when Sega released Gigas and Gigas Mark II, games which introduced innovations such as: rich graphical backgrounds, power-ups, and falling objects which the player must avoid.
That same year Taito/Romstar muscled into Breakout territory with the release of Arkanoid. Although a later arrival than Gigas, Arkanoid is possibly the most popular game of the genre, and the one which most notably defines the “paddle & ball vs. blocks and other stuff” game play we know today.
Core Elements of Breakout-style Games
Every game genre has its originator(s), followed by an inevitable string of clones that introduce one or two new features. The Breakout genre is no different. While the original Breakout offered very limited level design and target object variety, a legacy of cloning and incremental improvement now presents us with a large number of features which are considered “core” to Breakout-style games.
Multi-hit breakable blocks – blocks form the bulk of most Breakout-style game levels. In some games variation in block durability (single or multi-hit) is used to create a more complex playfield.
Block and ball size variation – larger blocks and balls generally make for a shorter, easier game since it becomes easier to get the ball to a specific target. Conversely smaller blocks and balls increase the level of difficulty (due to reduced target size and visibility).
Block color variation – color can be purely cosmetic and used to create representational game levels (see Level Design – Common Structural Archetypes, later in the article). It can also have a specific meaning; with different colors used to designate different properties (number of hits required, higher point value, etc).
Unbreakable blocks – the primary purpose of unbreakable blocks is to limit access to level objectives (or repeatedly channel the ball). Unbreakable blocks sometimes have special properties like rebounding the ball at a faster speed, or disintegrating once the ball hits a special switch or trigger.
Power-ups – there are so many types of power-ups that I won’t even attempt to describe them all here. However, I will list the archetypes that seem to appear in most games: (a) ball adheres to paddle, (b) ball is slowed, (c) ball damage increases, (d) ball becomes larger, (e) extra ball in play, and (f) paddle becomes wider. Some power-ups like “ball becomes larger” can actually be power-downs depending upon where the ball is when the power-up takes effect…
In most cases power-ups fall from block formations (when hit) and need to be caught on the paddle to take effect. This provides the player with a significant choice between chasing down the ball or going for a much-needed power-up.
Power-downs – as above, I’ll simply list the most common archetypes: (a) slow paddle, (b) narrower paddle, (c) fast ball, (d) tiny ball. When these fall from block formations, it is usually obvious to the player that they are negative, so he/she can take care to avoid them.
Ball trajectory controllers – there are several common trajectory controllers usually seen in Breakout-style games: (a) the mechanism, which grabs the ball and ejects it upon a trigger event, (b) the hole, which sucks the ball in and auto-releases it at a pre-determined trajectory, (c) the wedge shape, which forces the ball to return at a less predictable angle, (d) the channel (or arrow), which constrains the ball to move along a new vector (see Paper Ball: http://www.e-giraffa.com/). Trajectory controllers can prove extremely challenging depending upon the “return angle” of the trajectory controller and its distance from the paddle (or bottom of the screen).
Ball speed amplifiers – speed amplifiers usually take the form of persistent pinball style bumpers which rebound the ball with increased velocity. However they can also be playfield regions with a “speed amplifier” property that accelerates the ball as it passes through them (good for shaking up the player’s sense of timing).
Moving power-ups and power-downs – some games provide power-ups with limited motion (oscillating, path-based, or logic-based) which makes them harder to obtain, increasing the challenge. Moving power-downs (with homing capabilities) are also a great way to turn the tables on the player.
Switches (ball locks, trigger areas, buttons) – switches are often used to open up “reward areas” of a level by destroying large numbers of normal blocks or unbreakable blocks. Switches can also be used to activate boss enemies, set additional targets into motion, etc. Ball locks can be triggers, or trajectory controllers (see above), catching the ball then shooting it at another switch or a bomb (see below).
Ball traps – ball traps are small gaps in block formations that hold a payload of one or more balls. When the player destroys enough blocks to breach the ball trap, its payload of balls is released. Ball traps also take the form of objects which must be hit or broken in order to release their payload (wooden crates, glass containers, etc).
Bombs – bombs can be free-moving, but are usually stationary, nestled within a formation of blocks. When hit with the ball they explode, carving out small chunks of blocks or setting off major chain reactions.
Shields – shield are a special class of power-up that blocks the ball from falling off the bottom of the screen. Shields can last for a specific duration, or for one ball-hit per shield layer.
Invisible blocks – these blocks start in an invisible state and only become visible for a short time after one of them is hit.
Progressive blocks – each time the ball hits the paddle, the wall of blocks descends a small amount towards the bottom of the screen. Players must focus on breaking the lower wall of blocks (or simply trying to score as much as possible) before they are overwhelmed.
Multiple paddles – this feature presents the player with two paddles, one above the other. Additional options include adjustable spacing between the paddles, independently varying paddle sizes, and changing the points awarded for using a particular paddle.